“I want to write and perform music that moves people and causes them to contemplate their own lives and their relationship to the rest of the world,” says vocalist Anna Wise. With her powerfully ethereal voice, Anna exhibits the qualities of the well-rounded vocal artist — virtuosic skills, artistic creativity, and wisdom from her experiences as a vocalist, an artist, and a unique individual — all which emanate from her work with the electronic duo Sonnymoon, among others. Anna speaks on her journey and growth as a vocal artist — her initial experiences singing in her childhood, studying at the Berklee College of Music, pursuing her art as a career, and more.
Tell us about your growth as a vocal artist — what sparked your interest in singing, and where did it begin?
They called me “Tweety Bird,” because I would not stop singing. My parents tell me I knew every word to “The Sound of Music” and “Singin in the Rain” when I was 3. My dad would sing me songs all the time, and he often had band rehearsal in the house. All of my older siblings were involved in bands and choirs growing up, so I was along for the ride at every one of their performances. As my older brothers got into video games and (later) online gaming, I was often left to myself, and I would spend that time singing for hours and hours. I would sing anything: Kirk Franklin, DC Talk, the Forrest Gump soundtrack. I remember listening to the Ghostbusters 2 soundtrack in my mom’s mini van obsessing endlessly over “Higher and Higher.” I remember being in fourth grade and hearing my brother’s high school Jazz Choir perform “Skylark,” (The Real Group version) and I wanted to sing the female solo too, and did, later. My first memories are of music and singing. I don’t remember having a choice about the matter; I felt a propulsion from within to emote with my voice.
What made you decide to pursue your art as a career?
I had whittled all the other options away without even realizing it. I was going from school to school trying to find a place I felt at home where I could do what I wanted, even though I don’t think I knew what I wanted at all. I was going off my feelings and I got to a good place. I didn’t realize this was my “career” until recently, like, “damn I have no college degree, I have a huge amount of college debt, and if I want to continue doing what I like, I need to make some money.” It’s a shame, money is the ultimate stressor in my life right now, and the more artists I meet, the more apparent it is that this is a lifelong struggle, except for a strange few. So it was last year when I quit Berklee that I knew I had to figure out a way to support myself and pay off my college debt with my art, so I took it on as a career, but before that it was all feelings and impulse, no thinking about the career part, ever.
In your own words, how would you describe your music?
An expression of myself, my perception of the world and all its inhabitants that I am currently aware, how I relate to them, how they relate to me, and how we all relate to things unseen. Universal Healing. I don’t focus on description. I focus on feeling and creating and reflecting.
You come from a background in jazz — how do you work that aesthetic into your electronic music, especially in the case of projects like Sonnymoon?
I did attend a vocal jazz school for a little over two years, and it was a challenge for me the whole way through, and while I could go on for hours about the music and what it means or doesn’t mean, I’m not sure it would do any of us any good, or get us any closer to the truth than an “I don’t know.” I do improvise around the lyrics. Every time we play, I’m improvising. I like to take the words and play with the melody, like Ella on “All of Me” where she starts out all straight then improvises around the melody the second time through while still singing the lyrics. So I’m jazz… right? Many would be quick to say no. I’m disappointed and disillusioned by the accepted methods and elite club-like mentality of many jazz performers and educators, I wanted (and still want) to have fun and grow naturally as a musician and I felt as if the jazz schooling blended me up, took out all my individual bits, replacing them with magical jazz powder and, what, they were gonna pour me out and serve me to all the jazz elite I was supposed to be emulating? I got sick of that pretty quick, and I’m not saying all people who play jazz are elitist or weird like that, but my personal experience wasn’t a good one. But even the word jazz, what does it mean? We shouldn’t be so preoccupied with labeling styles of music and therefore intellectualizing them. We should be more concerned with feeling, discovering why our souls crave this expression, and it’s not an easy needle to thread for some. But no, I don’t work the jazz aesthetic into my electronic music because it’s all the same to me. It’s all a means to an expressive end.
The Berklee College of Music introduced you to Dane Orr, who makes up the other half of Sonnymoon, among many others — how has it influenced you as a vocalist, a musician, and an individual?
“The job of the Teacher is to arrange victories for the students.” – Quintillian.
Going to Berklee wasn’t as simple as going there with a goal to achieve something tangible. My most wonderful experience there was with the J Dilla ensemble. Dane was in Raydar Ellis’s first Hip-Hop Ensemble and J Dilla Ensemble. They were looking for a girl to sing “Cleva” and he suggested me. Three years later Raydar is still a huge influence in our lives. He brought hip-hop to Berklee, and he’s not elitist about it at all, even though he is the closest thing to a hip-hop encyclopedia I’ve ever known. He believes in Dane and me, and really encouraged us in the baby stages, and at every stage really, assuring us we had something special brewing. I fell in love with the mission of the ensemble and immersed myself into the music because I felt the spirit of the whole situation. I put my whole heart into it, for myself, for them, for others, for the memory of J Dilla, and it was wonderful.
The other teacher who influenced me was my ear-training instructor, Yumiko Matsuoka. She could teach anything well. She has a method that is unlike any other. If I can make a suggestion to anyone reading this who’s considering Berklee, take every class you can with her. I only missed one of her classes, which is a big deal. I missed a lot of class. I was so excited to be in her presence and learn from her. Whatever she’s got and whatever Raydar’s got, Berklee needs more of it.
Tell us about your voice as an instrument. What techniques do you use, individual practice, vocal exercises, and otherwise, to ensure that your unique voice both maintains its edge and continues to develop?
As I’m about to be a quarter century old I’m realizing I have to keep up some sort of regimen in order to promote longevity. Before any performance, I will have ideally done some lip trills, some vocal slides, some stretches and some deep breathing. I learned that from my high school teacher, Jenny Bent. The part of my voice I’m interested in developing is not really my voice at all — it’s the thoughts behind my voice. For example, with one note I can be considering the duration, the amount of vibrato I use, how I attack it, how I taper off of it, how I choose to pronounce my consonants and vowels, etc. It all becomes an expressive game for me. Tiny inflections are so sweet. You can ride the phrase of a note, a song, or an entire evening. I’m going for that overall performance arc. I’m not worried about maintaining an edge. I didn’t intend to have any sort of edge in the first place. Of course I want to get better, but it happens naturally over time, and I don’t push it.
Pursuing a career as a vocalist takes a significant amount of dedication and perseverance — what obstacles, if any, have you faced as a vocal artist and a musician, and how did you overcome them?
I have to confront myself, I have to analyze my motives, have to check in with the people who know me best. Many of my obstacles have been self-inflicted, I don’t want to place blame, some people were discouraging in various ways, but at this moment I don’t feel it is worth dwelling over, because I’m thankful for all experiences I’ve had, encouraging and discouraging ones. In a few years I might be able to look back again and pinpoint some struggles, but now I think it’s still fresh and I don’t have hindsight perspective on it yet.
Sonnymoon’s ethereal sound draws from a vast variety of sources — everyone from Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk to J Dilla and Madlib. Where do you, as an individual vocal artist, draw your inspiration from?
Everything. Every experience, every song I’ve ever heard, every sight I’ve seen, eyes open, eyes closed. Every person I’ve met, every billboard, commercial, book, online article, etc. I think a lot about my relationship to the rest of the world, every aspect of it. I have had some pretty cool interactions with animals, and this summer I had this weird epiphany about insects and started thinking they are not gross, and like a month later a dragonfly sat on my forearm for 15 minutes. I don’t quite understand it all yet, but I get a strong sense that it’s all connected, especially now. The agricultural revolution took thousands of years, the industrial took hundreds, information revolution took decades…now, WHAT is next?? I try to stay informed, the whole world is buzzing with events and revolutionary thoughts. I live and interact and seek joy in my life, which is inspiring. Stepping outside, I’m inspired. Getting lost in my own head, I’m inspired.
Tell us about what you’re currently pursuing as artist/musician — what do you wish to achieve as a vocal artist, both in the short term and the long term?
I like to focus on getting to know people. I talk to a lot of people right off the bat. I want to connect. I have no goal to be the best singer ever, hit the highest note, sing the fastest runs. I’m in this to discover new creative ground, to express myself. I like simple, wide-eyed, no judgment sort of things. I’m really pursuing life in general. I’ve been singing since the beginning of my human existence, so my artistry and my lifestyle are intertwined, so the more I focus on my general betterment, the more I thrive as an artist. I want to write and perform music that moves people and causes them to contemplate their own lives and their relationship to the rest of the world. I want to keep doing whatever it is I do and see where else it takes me.
Words by Rachel Cantrell
Find out more about Sonnymoon